07 December 2008

Some thoughts towards a philosophical basis for an Egalitarian Party of Canada

Very short version: I'm not special, and neither are you.

Rather longer version, though probably not as long as it ought to be:

In the beginning of fully modern humans, we got, along with better language, cultural transmission by means other than imitation, and the utility of rhetoric surprasing that of violence in social organization, specialization.

Ung the Maker of Pictures or Arv the Knapper of Flint don't need to be—are very probably discouraged from being, lest the mammoth step on them—mighty hunters, because everyone who is a mighty hunter is willing to swap them some food for what they can do. This kind of spear-points-for-meat exchange produces the basic insight that you have a good trade when both parties feel they have benefited from the exchange.

As civilization progresses, the number of kinds of things you can do for trade (as opposed to for the use of your own immediate household) grows until pretty much everybody is doing things for trade, rather than direct use. (This is why money gets invented, but it's thousands of years between the first money and the present "everyone engaged in specialized work and generalized trade" stage in industrial and post-industrial countries.)

It's obvious that specialized work and general trade is a more capable system than generalized production for your own consumption. Ung can now have eleventy different kinds of media, from the oils directly descended from ochre earth and soot ground in mammoth fat and put on the walls of a cave through to the purely digital. And the general stress tradeoff, even if it's for different stress, is a win; better to worry about losing your job than being eaten by bears. Being worried about starving (and I have been, bytimes) is better when it's a question of who can you get to give you food instead of being the case that there is no food to be had for anyone, too.

The problem becomes how to organize it.

There we run into the older basis of prosperity, which is band status; if you're high status, you don't get left for the leopard. Your breeding opportunities are better, and you get first choice of which bit of freshly-bludgeoned antelope you want. What you don't get is any ability to co-operate in really large groups of, say, more than a thousand (though more than fifty would be the usual limit) because basic primate band status isn't capable of that. It works on who does or doesn't get hit, and avoiding pain works less well as a basis for co-operation than does getting what you want. (Getting what you want without being hit, even!)

Band status is deeply engrained in human social organization; being civilized socially exploits the long evolution of the primate band structure. The difficulty is, band status is exactly what the specialized work/general trade system of civilization does not need. In that system, no one is important, or it, to various degrees, stops working. (Historically, it would be more correct to say that it never starts working.)

That's because once someone is important, they can insist that it is more important that they are happy about the trade than that you are happy about the trade, and the whole thing stops being a mechanism to produce general benefit and starts being a mechanism to maintain importance.

That's the core fight over how the mechanism should be used right there; is this thing—society, government, a decent respect for the common opinions of all people everywhere—there to keep the important important, or is it there to advance the general prosperity through insisting on real consent from all parties to trade?

I strongly advocate the real consent position; the maintenance of importance harms almost everybody to one degree or another, which is bad, and what is worse, it's much less capable at solving problems. Which means that eventually either a real problem comes along and breaks it ("outside context problem") or another system of organization that solves problems better will come into conflict with it, with messy results.

So, basic ideas:

  1. division of labour—productive specialization—leads to generalized trade amoung people which in turn leads to greater access to choice, general prosperity, and individual happiness than production for you own consumption does.
  2. good trade is trade which all parties benefit from AND which no party is able to bias in its favour to get greater relative benefit. ("I get rich, you don't starve" is not good trade.)
  3. personal importance is a barrier to good trade; it creates a belief that the primate band rules, rather than the civilized modern human rules, should be used, and that belief leads to bad trade.
  4. Bad trade, to the extent that it exists, reduces the prosperity and capability of a society or nation over time.
  5. Good trade, to the extent that it exists, increases the prosperity and capability of a society or nation over time.

There are lots of corrolaries that can be drawn from this; the Canadian policy of a single legal system and social multiculturalism makes a lot of sense in this context, for example. But the core points are the above five.

The derived political manifesto has three points:

  1. On the scale of the market place or the public square, no one is important or special; it is a proper function of government to suppress attempts to claim special importance by the least sufficient means required.
  2. The core purpose of government is to increase the amount of good trade taking place in the future, compared to the amount taking place today. This includes both replacing bad trade with good trade, finding means to encourage good trade, and dismantling systems of organization antithetical to the growth of good trade.
  3. No one is special, but everyone needs a job to do. Government derives the obligation to explain the general jobs, the civilization-keeps-running-as-a-sum-of-daily-choices work, and to provide everybody with access to the means of having a selection of divisions of labour to occupy. ("For there isn't a choice in a village so small/you either work with the granite or you don't work at all"; people should not be left in that condition.)
As a personal note, I am very pleased to have finally got this right way round in my head, so that it feels like I can explain it[1]. I am kinda hoping this is going to let me produce a good theoretical explanation for corporations as people is a bad idea, too.

[1] If it parses like I'm from Arcturus, well, I still want to know that. Because it's still the right way round, and I am still happy.


jennie said...

On the scale of the market place or the public square, no one is important or special; it is a proper function of government to suppress attempts to claim special importance by the least sufficient means required.

So I figured out what was bugging me about this, finally (and yes, I think it's comprehensible and logically consistent. I just think it very likely needs expanding).

Because, currently, some of us treat certain groups or people as "special" for historical reasons—as the groups of which they are members appear to have been treated specially badly, and individuals have therefore been historically de-privileged.

Nobody is special, but some people need extra or non-standard help in order to have access to anything approaching the same choice-space that the rest of us have. Some people need restrooms that accommodate their needs, or extra unpenalized days off work for medical testing or treatment, or braille resources. Some people need not to be shouted down when they speak, for what they say is valuable, even if they cannot say it in a very loud voice.

To me, it makes some sense to address these imbalances in the marketplace and the public square, at least until we figure out how to even up the score.

And while I see accommodations as encouraging equality, others see them as treating some people as special. I suppose the response to such complaints is to say "You can have a wheelchair/braille report/translator/day off too, if you need it?

Graydon said...

I knew it needed expanding! It's not even really an essay yet.

"Nobody is special" is half of it; it is in a lot of ways the more important half, because so much of human society has been organized to produce a value hierarchy across people.

The other half is "everybody has a job to do"; if someone is prevented by the workings of chance -- accidents of birth or accidents of circumstance -- from being able to do that (complex, not just what you do to earn enough to live) job, it entirely behoves government to do what might be done to correct that.

The alternative formulation is to note that "nobody is special" counts for both positive and negative values of special. The positive values do more general harm; the negative values do specific harm. Neither is acceptable.